Thursday, April 24, 2014

Our Earth Day

“What the Hell's Goin’ on Here?”

Untitled, by Jala Magik

     Almost a year ago I posted an entry of sympathy for the thousands of drivers who are stuck in traffic on a nearly daily basis on their way across the bridge-tunnel between Norfolk and her sister cities on the other side of the Chesapeake Bay.
     I remarked that this had never happened to me, though I’ve lived in Norfolk since 1994. I said I didn’t know how people could bear the paralyzing gridlock, day in and day out. I advised them to find work closer to home.
     Well, on Earth Day this year it was my turn, and I must eat my words. I got stuck in traffic like any other poor fool, making me more than late for a long-standing engagement. In fact, I was forced to cancel.
     It was disappointing. It was humiliating. But it was beyond my control. And one thing I said in that previous post I still stand by. It was a nightmare.
     We’d just paid a mechanic a costly amount for a new water pump. The repair seemed successful. Judging by the temperature gauge on the dashboard, our ‘97 Chevy Cavalier had never run so cool in the eleven years we’ve had her. The needle stood just shy of half-way to hot, as we drove her about town. We were pleased.
     Meanwhile, I had a poetry performance at a retirement home in Newport News at 7 p.m. I knew the bridge-tunnel traffic could be problematic at that hour. But I didn’t anticipate how problematic. And, foolishly as it turned out, I hoped for one of those days when traffic would not back up too much. It sometimes happens. Honestly, it does.
     Jala comes along with me on these gigs. She likes the show—I call it “Oceans of Feelings”—and helps me with setting up and welcoming audiences. She arranged to get off from her work early so we could leave at 5:30. It’s only a 25-minute drive, ordinarily. We thought we were allowing enough time for any back-ups we might run into.
     How wrong could we be?
     I listened to the 5 o’clock traffic report on public radio. The news was not good. On every expressway in the area, including the one we needed to take, there was a wreck, bringing traffic just about everywhere to a standstill.
     We should have left at 3. If we’d had any idea of how bad it was going to be, we would have.
     In any case, as planned, we left our house at 5:30 and headed for the nearest access to the expressway. We never made it. Several miles away from the highway ramp we encountered a stationary line-up of vehicles—two lanes of red brake lights stretching ahead as far as we could see. Soon a similar line-up fell into place behind us. We were trapped, inching ahead now a few yards every minute or so.
     “What the hell’s goin’ on here?” a guy in a truck yelled to us from the right lane. Good question.
     It was 6:15 by then. I suggested Jala call ahead to the retirement home on her cell phone to tell them we might be late. Even very late.
     But her cell phone service had been blocked after she’d reported the phone missing on Easter. She’d lost it at church, and though she’d recovered it that morning she’d forgotten to have the service restored.
     Shortly after we realized we had no phone, I noticed the needle of the temperature dial on the dashboard rapidly rising. That’s when the nightmare became real.
     I turned the engine off. When the car in front of us moved, I turned it back on, crept ahead a few yards, stopped, turned it off again. But clearly this was unsustainable. Somehow, some way, I had to get us out of there.
     We were in the left lane. Not too far ahead in the right lane there was a junction with a street we could take to the shopping center serving our greater Ocean View neighborhood.
     I managed to squeeze into that lane, and, alternately shutting down the engine and starting it back up, we crept along a few yards at a time until we reached the intersection, made the turn, and escaped the nightmare. Or at least that segment of it.
     As I drove at a normal speed toward the shopping center, the needle of the temperature gauge fell back to the center of the dial. I thought there might be some way we could still get to the gig if traffic on the expressway started moving again. Jala thought it was a crazy to think so, given the conditions we’d just left. She wanted to go home and call from there to cancel. But I wanted to call from the shopping center, close to the expressway, in case the traffic cleared and we could still arrive, better late than never. I couldn’t accept the obvious—that I wasn’t going to make my gig.
     We stopped at the video store where we’re well known to see if anyone had a phone we could use. Predictably, none of the clerks we know were on duty, but one fellow kindly surrendered his phone, and we called the retirement home.
     The woman who answered knew nothing about a performance. She was in another unit, and all office personnel had left at 5. But she said she’d try to get someone to call me back, and after a few minutes the activities director who had hired me returned my call.
     This gig was originally scheduled for January but was canceled because of snow. Was I now telling her I couldn’t make this rescheduled date because of hopeless traffic and an overheating car?
     “This is the second time,” she said.
     “I know,” I said.
     “This is very disappointing,” she said.
     “Maybe if the traffic clears, we could do the show later this evening,” I suggested.
     She said there are alternative routes around the traffic jam. Why hadn’t I tried one of them? I said I wasn’t familiar with any alternative routes. There are at least two, she said, through one or the other of two tunnels downtown, bypassing Norfolk to reach Newport News on another expressway. But those tunnels were forty minutes from where we live, and there were accidents tying up traffic on that expressway, too, according to the 5 o’clock news. I couldn’t risk getting into another back-up with a car that was overheating on a route I was unfamiliar with.
     But there was nothing I could say, finally, except, “I’m sorry,” over and over, which wasn’t enough to satisfy her displeasure. I hung up feeling completely diminished. Clearly I’d never work there again.
     When we got home I tore up the check I’d been holding since January and went out on a bicycling meditation.
     (A bicycling meditation is like a walking meditation except it’s on a bicycle. Walking meditation is described in my tenth Lenten Diary post for April 15, “Only My Cats Were Missing.”)
     Eventually, sitting by one of the tidal waterways that lace their way through Norfolk’s neighborhoods, I realized that this set-back was nothing. The impact of its emotional stress would soon pass, remembered only as another laughable anecdote in life’s litany of crossed wires.
     From there I began to think about why that activities director might have been so cold. Maybe she was at the end of a stressful day, not unlike our own frustration at being stuck in traffic. I felt her pressure at having to fill an hour she thought was covered. I wondered if she might have to answer to someone for hiring an unreliable poet. I reminded myself of the current planetary configurations which are challenging us all, to say the least.
     By the end of the evening Jala and I were laughing over the absurdity of the whole situation. Our Chevy saved us from an enormous hassle, we concluded. She got the message before we did that this gig was a lost cause. There was nothing we could do about it. For whatever reason, we were not supposed to do our show at that facility. Period.
     But there was another, more important element to it all, which became clear to us the next morning. We’d just come off our Buddhist retreat on the Eastern Shore, as described in my last two Journal posts. We were consciously attempting to adopt the practices we’d solidified there into our daily, non-retreat life. The real-world mess we’d run into the evening before, including the activity director’s unsympathetic response to our dilemma, was an opportunity to apply those mindful practices, including patience, forbearance, calm mind, attention to the moment, and acceptance rather than resistance in a situation in which all that could be changed was our attitude.
     How’d we do? we asked ourselves.
     Answer: Not too badly. Give us a C, or maybe a B-minus—definitely room for improvement. For instance, the depression and lowered self-esteem that we nurtured in the aftermath of the whole mess, while understandable I suppose, was out of proportion to our sincere intentions. We really had tried. That counts for something.
     And, looking more deeply into the situation, what might it be telling us about ourselves and our lives?
     Maybe it’s time to trade in our old car for a more road-worthy model, if we want to travel around this area and beyond. That’s an easy conclusion, but it ignores the greater reality of gridlock.
     Should we consider giving up a car entirely? Does it really serve the common good to pollute the air we all breathe for the personal convenience of driving? Jala and I live by the tidal wetlands. We’re witness to the struggle of the trees and other vegetation against the noise and fumes from all manner of motor vehicles, including screaming military jets. Struggling with the trees are the song birds and other furtive wild life, hungry and scared in a scruffy wooded ghetto, all that’s left for them after development has pushed into their habitats as far as politics will allow.
     Is there really any excuse for participating in the polluting, daily gridlock of motor vehicles that poor urban planning has loosed upon our cities? Isn’t there a better alternative than the current transportation agenda coming from Richmond to build more roads and tunnels and charge people tolls to pay for them?
     Maybe it’s even time to retire from this dead-end life as a low-paid theatrical performer!
     These are the sort of considerations, personal and societal, that remain in my mind after our harrowing Earth Day, April 22, 2014.
     In all of that, I remind myself that it’s not important I missed the gig—or lost the money I thought I needed from it. What really matters is that I don’t get fooled again into thinking that it really matters.


At 10:42 PM , Anonymous kate loving shenk said...

The woman was a red flag with her attitude. Nevertheless, as you say, what was the lesson for you? I would dearly love to get rid of our vehicles and walk everywhere. That is an Earth Day wish.

At 10:47 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

How all we Hampton Roaders can empathize with your "disaster". More importantly how we can listen to the wisdom you drew upon in dealing with it.

At 1:07 AM , Blogger David Kissinger said...

I think you were saved from that retirement home. Not getting there was a blessing!!!

At 9:42 AM , Anonymous Seb said...

Oh, bummer! I try to walk everywhere now that I'm retired. Better for your health, the Earth, your sanity, and you get to see the world close up, something drivers never get to do--especially since they have their heads buried in their phones, texting!

At 11:37 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

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